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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                    123

lThe meteorological sergeant." Meresyev smiled, but his
eye again caught the words: "corne back soon, every-
body is^ expecting you", which were underlined. He sat
up in his bed and with the air of one who is searching in
his pockets and finds that he has lost an important docu-
ment, he groped convulsively in the place where his feet
had been. His hand touched empty space.

Only in that instant did Alexei fully realise the gravity
of his loss. He would never return to the wing, to the
Air Force, to the front. He would never again go up in
a plane and hurl himself into an air battle, neverl He
was now disabled, deprived of his beloved occupation,
pinned to one spot, a burden at home, unwanted in life.
And this would go on until the end of his days.

After the operation the worst that can happen to a
man in such circumstances happened to Alexei Meresyev
—he withdrew into himself. He did not complain, he
did not weep, he was never irritable. He just kept silent.
For whole days he lay motionless on his back, his eyes
concentrated on the winding crack in the ceiling. When
his wardmates spoke to him he answered "yes" or "no",
often inappropriately, and fell silent again, staring at a
dark crack in the plaster as if it were a hieroglyph, the
deciphering of which meant salvation for him. He
obediently carried out all the doctor's orders, took every-
thing he prescribed for him, ate his dinner listlessly,
without zest, and stretched out on his back again.
"Hey, greybeard!" the Commissar called. "What are
you thinking about?"
Alexei turned his head in the Commissar's direction and
looked at him with a blank stare as if he did not see him.
"What are you thinking about, I'm asking you?"
One day Vasily Vasilyevich came into the ward and
asked him in his customary bluff manner:
"Well, crawler, are you alive? How's things? You are
a hero, a hero, I say. You didn't even murmur. Now I can
believe that you crawled on all fours for eighteen days,
getting away from the Germans. I have operated on more
people in my time than the number of potatoes you've